Holiday Memory: The Disneyland Candlelight Stampede of 1998

As a very regular visitor to Disneyland over the last 12 years or so, I have seen a lot of major events at the park and have been there for a few customer-relations stumbles as well.  In one case in particular, namely the poorly run ticket-distribution for the 1998 Candlelight Processional show, one of Disneyland’s less shining moments ended up being one of my personally most important and memorable experiences at the park.

The Candlelight Processional is a long running holiday tradition at Disneyland.  It is a concert program that they typically run around the first week of December, which is a musical celebration of the religious aspect of the Christmas holiday, featuring a professional orchestra and a large massed choir formed from numerous church and school choirs as well as some Disney employees.  The show also features a celebrity narrator, who tells the Biblical Christmas story in between the songs.  This show has been a favorite Christmas season tradition for me for as long as I have lived out here in Southern California.  It is something I really look forward to every year.

Traditionally, this concert is performed on a stage set up in the Town Square area of Main Street, with the Railroad Station used as the backdrop.  In most years, there are just 4 evening performances of the show, two each on Saturday and Sunday.  The majority of the Town Square area is blocked off for the stage as well as for a large seating area.  Tickets for viewing the show in the seating area are mainly distributed to Disney’s corporate partners and other VIPs while regular park guests start staking out seats early to the sides and further back in order to get even an obstructed view of the show.

This can result in a lot of logistics problems and major bottlenecks in that part of the park on those days.  Because of this, Disney a fairly short-lived (5 years) experiment starting in 1998 of moving the show to the Fantasyland Theater, an outdoor performance venue located across from "It’s a Small World".  Walt Disney World had moved their version of the show from Town Square in the Magic Kingdom to a similar theater in Epcot a few years earlier and had eventually managed to expand it multiple shows a night throughout the holiday season, with reserved seating tickets being sold through popular dining packages.  There was a lot of speculation that this experiment with a change of venue at Disneyland was also hoped to eventually lead to a similar expansion of the program, although that never materialized and the show was finally moved back to Main Street starting in 2003.

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Thanksgiving at Disneyland

We have had an exceptionally busy month of visiting relatives and our son’s birthday celebration and, to top it off, we have a trip to Florida coming up next week.  With all that going on, we decided that we just didn’t feel like going through all the work of preparing a big Thanksgiving dinner at home this year.  Knowing from past experience that, on Thanksgiving, Disneyland isn’t overly busy and they offer special menus of traditional turkey dinners at most of their restaurants, we decided that a day at the park was an ideal way for us to spend the holiday.

We left for the park around 11am and I was pretty surprised at how heavy the traffic on the south 5 freeway was.  In the past, I’ve usually found that traffic is pretty light on Thanksgiving, but the drive this time turned out to be pretty slow-going.  We didn’t see indications of any accidents or other problems, so I suspect that our timing was such that there were just a lot of people heading down to Orange County or San Diego for holiday gatherings.  The drive wasn’t particularly unpleasant, though, and we enjoyed listening to the Christmas music station on XM satellite radio during the drive.  Thanksgiving is the first day that I’m generally willing to start listening to Christmas music, even though it seems like some stations start playing it earlier every year.

We occasionally switched over to the traffic reports on XM, but didn’t get any information from that either.  We found it weird when they were reporting one major incident on “southbound I-10”, considering that the 10 is an east-west freeway.  Eventually, we figured out that the traffic reporter was misreading the first digit of “110” as an “I”.  We often find the traffic reports on there a bit amusing since the reporters are clearly not in Southern California and often seriously butcher pronunciations.  It is particularly fun listening to some of them trying to pronounce “Cahuenga” or “Sepulveda”.

By the time we actually got into the park, it was close to 1pm.  During a previous Thanksgiving visit, we had eaten at Carnation Restaurant on Main Street and had found that to be an especially good choice.  It is a table-service restaurant, which is preferable to cafeteria style for Thanksgiving dinner, and the Americana setting of Main Street just seems exceptionally suited to the holiday.  We were briefly concerned that the weather was a bit drizzly and overcast and the restaurant has all outdoor seating, but the weather was already clearing by the time we got there and we noted that they had large umbrella coverings over all the tables, so we decided to go ahead with it.  Even though we didn’t have reservations, we were seated with only about a 15 minute or so wait.

When they brought the menus and explained to us about the special Thanksgiving dinner, we immediately ran into a very large irritation, although it was one that wasn’t entirely unexpected based on a previous experience.  Despite the fact that it was Thanksgiving and the fact that Disneyland is obviously well-known for attracting families with small children, they were not offering a children’s portion of the turkey dinner.  Basically, children had to either order the adult portion (at the full price) or settle for a choice of chicken strips, macaroni & cheese, or PB&J.  Our 5-year-old most certainly was not going to willingly accept anything other than a turkey dinner, which is one of his favorite meals even when it isn’t Thanksgiving.

When this came up 2-years ago (and our son was only 3), we ended up escalating the issue to a manager and eventually the chef actually came out and offered to prepare a half-portion for our son.  He also instructed the servers to make that option available to any other families and we saw several other families order the same while we were at the restaurant.  I had hoped that after that experience they would start simply placing it on the menu, but I guess that didn’t happen.

Our son’s appetite has grown quite a bit and, quite honestly, we just weren’t in the mood to go through the big hassle of escalating the issue again this year.  Therefore, we just went ahead and ordered 3 adult meals.  We figured my wife and I can also augment our own meals a bit, if it proved to be too much food.  The portions were really quite large, though, and he did end up leaving some of the turkey (and most of the stuffing) on the plate, even after we did both take some of his food as our own second helpings.  We did see other children in the restaurant also struggling through the large portions and I suspect they ended up with a bunch of waste.  In retrospect, I do kind of wish that we had made more of an issue out of it again.

The food was generally pretty good, although we did agree on one complaint.  The gravy used on the potatoes and turkey was quite a bit more salty than it should have been.  It certainly didn’t help that it didn’t occur to me to test it before adding a little additional salt.  It still wasn’t bad enough to warrant sending the food back, but I did find myself scraping off much of the gravy.  Other than that, the turkey was served hot and wasn’t overly dry and the potatoes and stuffing were good as well.  The meal also came with some cooked vegetables which aren’t to my taste (I really don’t like any cooked veggies other than corn) and some fresh cranberry sauce and a dinner roll.  With the obvious caveats above, it was a pretty decent Thanksgiving meal for about $15/person and the location certainly was top-notch for it.

While pumpkin pie was available as a special Thanksgiving-only dessert option, none of us really care for that and decided to opt out from it.  Instead, we got ice cream sundaes from the Gibson Girl Ice Cream Parlor as our dessert and enjoyed them while listening to the piano player at Refreshment Corner.  One of Disneyland’s long-standing traditions for the holiday season is to offer special seasonal food choices at some locations and one of my absolute favorite is peppermint stick ice cream.  That was a key motivation for me wanting to get ice cream for dessert and it was as good as ever.

During the remainder of the afternoon, we took the opportunity to enjoy some of the park’s special offerings for the holidays.  This included two rides (one during the day and one after dark) on It’s a Small World, which they have been extensively decorating for the holidays for a number of years now.  That is something we look forward to every year and we were particularly excited to see this time, since the attraction had been down for a major refurbishment since the beginning of the year.  We only noticed a few minor changes (most notable being all new boats), but everything looked to be in excellent condition.  This is a very popular attraction during the holidays, but the lines were very short (10 minutes or so) each time.  Thanksgiving just isn’t a very busy day at the park.

Other than the two rides on Small World and one ride on King Arthur’s Carrousel, we didn’t actually do any other rides that day.  Instead, we spent some time looking at the various decorations as well as paying a visit to the "Reindeer Roundup" area on Big Thunder Trail to see the pardoned national turkeys (who usually end up at Disneyland after the ceremony with the president) and pay a visit to Santa Goofy.  We also enjoyed a walk through the newly re-opened and updated Sleeping Beauty dioramas in the castle.  This had been closed for about 7 years and it was nice to see it return.  After dark, while my wife went off to do some shopping, my son and I enjoyed sitting for a while at the hub waiting for and watching the lighting ceremony where they turn on the elaborate Christmas lights on the castle.

We left the park for home around 7:30pm or so and found traffic to be fairly light for the drive home.  We made a couple attempts to see if we could find any fast food restaurants opened for a small and quick dinner, but found that everything we checked was closed.  I guess there just isn’t much demand for McDonalds or Burger King on Thanksgiving. While we were getting a bit hungry by the time we made it home (and fixed some hot dogs), I did think it was nice that those places let their employees spend the holiday evening wieh their families.

This was a nice Thanksgiving and, despite some complaints about the meal, I felt we made a good choice as to how to spend the day.

Playing Santa

Although my son Andy has certainly enjoyed the festivities of his past Christmases (having turned four-years-old in November, this year is his fifth), this year is the first year that he has really shared in the overall anticipation of the holiday. Of course, a big part of that has been his first real understanding of the ideas and stories of Santa Claus.

My wife and I have really had a great time playing up the Santa story and helping him to build his excitement. A couple weeks ago, we sat down with him one evening and let him dictate the traditional letter to Santa. His requests were for “An airplane present”, “a blanket”, “paper” (he has been very into drawing and coloring lately), and “more presents”. We were especially amused that he has already learned to hedge his bets with the final “catch-all” request. This letter was written a couple evenings before a babysitter was coming over while we went out to finish our Christmas shopping. We took the letter along that evening and reported that we were going out to deliver it to Santa.

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